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Jazz in China and Where to Find It
by Ellen Barth - Mar 21, 2015
Like Marmite, people tend to love it or hate it.
Jazz began in the USA on the steamy streets of New Orleans, with early jazzers like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong leading the way for cool, bebop, acid and free jazz. Though these may be the origins, jazz has since become a worldwide phenomenon. The soul of jazz is in innovation, improvisation and experimentation. Words sometimes fail, but music speaks all languages.
So where do you go if you're in mainland China and in the mood to swing?
Shanghai was the first city in China to hear this new type of music. In the 1920s, Shanghai was known as the “Paris of the East.” Here was a place where cultures collided and merged. One example is that of shidaiqu (时代曲), or “songs of the era,” a new musical genre particular to Shanghai, one that used jazz instruments to create a contemporary sound.
This long history with jazz continues to make Shanghai a prime destination for enthusiasts.
Jazz at the Canidrome in Shanghai
Chinese name: 爵士酒吧 (Juéshì Jiǔba)
Address: 46 Fuxing West Rd, Xuhui District (上海市徐汇区复兴西路46号)
Phone: (021) 6431 0269
Hours: 20:00–03:00 (next day)
JZ Club boasts jazz music 365 days a year. Opened in 2004, this venue is in the charming French Concession neighborhood. Wander around the streets here before taking in some jazz and you might just feel transported to another time. Red lighting and upholstered furniture make for a cozy listening experience. The second floor gallery offers good views of the action on stage, which, depending on the night, could be hosting a local or international band.
Area map of JZ Club
JZ Club Photo by Jill Shih
Address: 1416 Huaihai Middle Rd, Xuhui District (上海市徐汇区淮海中路1416号)
Phone: (021) 6437 7110
Hours: 19:00 – 1:00 (next day) (Tue - Thu)
19:00 – 2:00 (next day) (Fri & Sat)
Closed on Mon
Named after the famous Harlem jazz club of the 20s, 30s and 40s, Shanghai's Cotton Club is staple of Shanghai jazz. Located just down the road from JZ Club, they have music every night and, though you might not be bowled over by the interior, the glass mosaic behind the stage is quite nice and there is music to be heard every night.
Area map of Cotton Club
Jazz Bar at the Fairmont Peace Hotel
Address: 20 Nanjing East Rd, Huangpu District (上海市黄埔区南京东路20号)
Phone: (021) 6321 6888
Hours: 17:30 - 2:00 (next day); performance begins from 19:00
If you're looking for something more upscale and less experimental, head to the Jazz Bar located in the Fairmont Peace Hotel. This Art-Deco building is directly on the Bund and pretty swanky – put on a nice shirt if you're going. A house band plays nightly. The gents in the band have been around the block a few times (the average age in the group is 80). Reviews are mixed, and many dislike the enforced minimum purchase amount of 150 RMB.
This isn't a place to experience the joy of improvisation and experimentation. While still an interesting experience to have (if your wallet can take it), jazz at the Fairmont probably won't lift you to very great heights.
Area map of Peace Hotel
With the rise of communism, jazz music was banned in China. In the 1980s, rock music, especially that of Cui Jian (崔健), became the anthem of student rebellion. This opened the door for more forms of musical expression in China, including folk, punk, and – once again – jazz.
Pop King of China, Cui Jian
East Shore Live Jazz Café
Chinese name: 东岸爵士 (Dōng’àn Juéshì)
Address: 2/F, 2 Qianhai Nanyanlu, Di'anmenwai Dajie, Xicheng District (北京市西城区地安门外大街前海南沿甲2号)
Phone: (010) 8403 2131
Hours: 15:00 - 2:00 (next day)
With a view of Lake Houhai, East Shore Live Jazz Café is a must for jazz lovers in Beijing. Run by jazz musician and former Cui Jian band member Liu Yuan, it offers some big names in jazz alongside new and experimental acts. (Liu Yuan's own band plays here regularly.) With modestly priced drinks and rave reviews, this is a popular place. It might be best to make a reservation.
Area map of East Shore Live Jazz Café
East Shore Live Jazz Café Photo by montage
Chinese name: 江湖酒吧 (Jiānghú Jiǔba)
Address：7 Dongmianhua Hutong, Jiaodaokou Nandajie, Dongcheng District (北京东城区东棉花胡同7号, 近交道口南大街)
Phone: (010) 6401 5269; 155 1012 5274 （English）
Hours: 19:00 - 2:00 (next day)
You'll find the Jianghu Bar in the narrow streets of Beijing's hutong. A really intimate place with hanging red lanterns by the door, the bar can fit only a small audience. The interior is traditional with raw wood tables and chairs. Weekly jam sessions with musicians finding their sounds are a bonus.
Area map of Jianghu Bar
Modernista Old Cafe and Tapas Bar
Address: 44 Baochao Hutong, Dongcheng District (北京市东城区宝钞胡同44号)
Phone: 136 9142 5744
Hours: 15:00 - 2:00 (next day)
Not technically a jazz joint, Modernista (currently under reconstruction) hosts everything from experimental French chanson to classic rock & roll. A consistent amount of jazz acts on the schedule makes this one to keep your eye on. Also located in the hutongs, its black and white checkerboard floor is a memorable sight. Check out their Facebook page for updates (https://www.facebook.com/modernistabj), events and schedules. As the name suggests, you'll also be able to grab a bite to eat here if you're feeling peckish.
Area map of Modernista
Peter Fenn performing at Modernista
Photo by rose_symotiuk
OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival
Overseas Chinese Town (Huáqiáo Chéng; 华侨城), or OCT, in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, is a generally a pretty hip place to be. Shenzhen itself is a Special Economic Zone, making it more attractive to foreign investors, and as a result, the city is booming. Despite all the cranes working to construct new buildings, Shenzhen still has plenty of green. OCT is scenic and charming. Here, many old warehouses have been converted for artistic exhibitions and concerts.
And every October for fifteen or so days, OCT- LOFT Jazz Festival has concerts and events across the city. The organizers, Fei Tung and Fei Tu, want audiences to experience live jazz that “still maintains its ancient and mysterious nature and beauty.”
Many music venues in China will have but not be devoted to jazz, and the further west you go, the less likely you are to find even that. A “jazz bar” might end up being nothing more than a simple bar with a billiard table and C-pop on the speakers. But keep your eyes open – this is a musical genre that, through the very nature of its ability and desire to be toyed with, is continually expanding its audience.
Ellen Barth fell in love with China during her first Mandarin lesson when she was sixteen years old. American by birth but currently residing in Germany, Ellen spent a year studying and working in Xi'an, and received a degree in Asian Languages and Literatures in 2008. Since her first trip to China in 2004, she has traveled across Asia and Europe in order to appease her ever-itchy feet.